Why Titles Can Be Important for Women Professionals

The New Year is here.  We are hoping for improvements to our society in 2021 and beyond to include herd immunity to COVID-19, a recovered economy and an upward surge of decency and respect for those on the other side of the many debates raging throughout our country today.  One such debate from the closing days of 2020 got my attention. 

Who is allowed to use the moniker “doctor” was raised as an issue recently.  MDs are those we most often refer to as doctors, and the American Medical Association (AMA) has made sure we don’t get confused about that.  Having an MD behind a name traditionally has met with respect and deference.  For centuries, the AMA has limited the number of MDs in America, and it has worked out pretty well for them.

Not everyone who is a “doctor” is a medical type, however, and not everyone accepts the right of others to call themselves “doctor.”

However, lawyers, with their Juris Doctorate degrees, seem to have escaped criticism.  Juris Doctorate appears on all of our law school diplomas, which has been accepted as license to assume the moniker “doctor” without further explanation or additional proof of gravitas.  And we do just that.  We just shorten it to JD, spread it around liberally, and it passes without objection. 

But there are others, who have earned doctorate degrees among us, and their right to use the label “doctor” has come under attack.  For example, PhDs are doctors, Doctors of Philosophy. Somehow the letters got reversed, and instead of DPHs, they are PhDs.  It is easier to say and sounds a lot better.  The years of post graduate studies for doctorate degrees are similar to those of lawyers, and, in my experience, PhDs referring to themselves as “doctors” has never seemed to be an issue worth talking about.  There appeared to be room under the big doctor tent for all of us.

However, an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal recently, attacking President-Elect Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, who holds a doctorate in Education (an EdH), for using the title “doctor,” has made it an issue. That complaint piece, calling into question the future First Lady’s right to refer to herself as “doctor,” has spurred a debate that is unfortunate and belies the facts.  For an effective take down of this column, see the LA Times article laying out the facts about the the WSJ writer and the negative responses his column has elicited.

Ironically, as it turn out, “doctor” historically has meant “teacher,” which is very appropriate for an EdH in Education like Dr. Jill Biden, if that is what she desires.  And apparently she does desire it because her response to the attack makes it very clear that she takes pride in the level of her education and the work that she does on behalf of others similarly seeking higher education. 

Dr. Jill Biden’s pride in her accomplishments and dedication to her work were on display during the Obama administration when she was so devoted to her role as educator that she continued to teach during the eight years that her husband was vice president.  She taught at the Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) located outside of Washington, DC, and while she was there she was referred to only as “Dr. Jill.”  It seems that it was less important to her to be recognized as the Second Lady of the nation than it was to be recognized for her own education and her role in the educations of others.

It has been reported that, at one time during those years at NVCC, a student saw a picture of Dr. Jill with First Lady Michelle Obama and asked Dr. Jill whether she knew Mrs. Obama.  Dr. Jill’s response was not reported, however, and I think that is because it did not matter to her.  What mattered, I think, was that the student felt comfortable enough with Dr. Jill to approach her and ask the question.

All of this matters a lot to someone like me, who has devoted decades to advancing women in their chosen fields, particularly the law.  And it occurs to me that the salient question is this:  If it had been a male Ph.D referring to himself as “doctor” would anyone have cared enough to pen a snarky opinion piece and would an editorial staff of a major newspaper have published it?  I think not.

Rather, it appears that this is just a thinly veiled way for a man to discredit the accomplishments of a woman.   It is just another way for a man to keep a woman from rising to a level that makes him uncomfortable because he thinks that kind of recognition should be reserved for the powerful and privileged males in our society.  It is just another way for a man to make sure as few women as possible break through glass ceilings.

A moment like this may not present itself in quite the same way again.  We are not likely to see, at least for some time into the future, a woman, who values her accomplishments and work as an educator so much that she refuses to stop calling herself “doctor” for the privilege of calling herself “First Lady.” 

And why is that?  I expect that it has something to do with the fact that Jill Biden’s accomplishments and receipt of a doctorate degree are hers.  Her accomplishments.  Not someone else’s.  Not something she inherited from others or that was conferred on her through marriage.  Hers and hers alone.

Hear, hear.


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